Have you ever had an experience that fundamentally forced you to re-examine something you hold dear? A belief? A previous course of action? Something that you were so sure about and had never questioned? Or thought much about?
We are in the midst of the Joseph story in the Book of Genesis, which began a few weeks ago. By now, we are somewhat familiar with it; Joseph had some dreams, his brothers couldn’t stand him, they threw him in a pit, sold him into slavery and then lied to their father Jacob about it. What we probably don’t remember from the text is the detour the story makes about Judah. First, we read about how Judah advocated to not kill his brother Joseph. Then, we abruptly take pause from the narrative to learn about the tragic history of Judah and his descendants. He is blessed with three sons, but the two eldest sons die. We then, almost as abruptly, return to our narrative with Joseph being sold into slavery in the house of Potiphar, then going to prison and being freed and interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, and rising to become viceroy of Egypt.
Last week, the brothers had come to Egypt to procure food and we know that Joseph recognises them, but they do not recognise him. He insists that they bring Benjamin, Joseph’s brother the next time they come for food, or there will be no more food. Jacob is horrified at the thought of losing another son from his wife Rachel, that at first he refuses. Ruben, in perhaps his last act as leader of the brothers, instead offers his sons as a sacrifice, in a questionable, if not horrific trade off. Are we really to believe that Ruben would think that in exchange for losing a son, Jacob will sacrifice his grandson?
Judah however emerges as a true leader, one who has learned from the past and his own experiences. He knows firsthand the pain of losing not one but two children and he reassures his father that no harm shall come to Benjamin and offers himself as guarantor. It is at this point we understand why the text took the detour earlier, to give us insight into the life of Judah, to give us background to help explain his future actions. Judah was just one of the brothers who willingly went along with the deception to Jacob, tricking him into believing Joseph, his son, was killed. Now, as a grown man with children of his own, he realises just how wrong that was, how painful and deceitful in the worst possible way and steps in with empathy and compassion to reassure his father that no more of his children will be lost. That is why our tradition teaches us that Judah was granted not only the mantle of leadership among his brothers (not Joseph), but also the Temple would be constructed in his descendants’ territory and the Davidic line of kings which will eventually include the Messiah, also will come from his descendants.
When we come to those situations, I hope we react as did Judah, using our experiences to make our character.
Rabbi Rafi Kaiserblueth